Monday, May 30, 2011

Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov

Rating: 3 ½ Stars

In a time not too long ago, before ‘Vulcans’ and ‘Klingons’ became part of common parlance, before space operas with stirring theme music hit the cineplexes, there was Asimov. Author of nearly 500 books, Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) was more than just an amazingly prolific science fiction writer. Perhaps his greatest contribution was in ushering highly specialized knowledge out of the cloisters of academia, and making it accessible to the common man. A lay reader with little or no interest in science would still be able to appreciate and enjoy Asimov’s writing. ‘Pebble in the Sky’, published in 1950, was the first of his many books.

Joseph Schwartz is a sixty-two year old retired tailor. An accident in a nuclear lab creates a time fault that transports Schwartz from Chicago in 1949 to Chica in the Year of the Galactic Era 827. Even with his considerable intelligence, it takes Schwartz a while to realize what’s happened to him. No wonder; the language spoken in Chica is nothing he recognizes, nor is the Planet Earth as he remembers it. Its soil leached by radiation, Earth occupies a dismal position among the 100 million star systems that make up the Galactic Empire. It’s a washed up world, a mere ‘pebble in the sky’, and its denizens are universally despised as inferior beings riddled with contemptible traits.

Not the kind of species to take this disparagement lightly, Earth is in a fighting mood. Despite all the odds stacked against them, earthmen have a couple of tricks up their sleeves. However, they face off not against tentacled or insectoid aliens, but adversaries who appear to be human as well. Therein lies the moral dilemma of the book. Asimov seems to agreeably see both points of view, and doesn’t appear to favor one over the other. Either way destruction lies. The salvation of the galaxy might just rest on the shoulders of a mild-mannered tailor from the Past.

The jury is still out on whether certain books should be categorized as science fiction or fantasy. The one thing we can safely say is that there is no ‘magic’ in science fiction. Everything that requires a plausible explanation is given one, and nothing is attributed to eldritch elements. The frame of this story is bolstered by hard science, and the pace of the plot is enjoyably brisk with a gratifying conclusion. In one slim novel, the writer still manages to raise thought-provoking issues of bigotry, war, and the possibility of an uninhabitable planet.

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